Saturday, July 11, 2009

Quotant Quotables vol. 28

by H.P. Lovecraft

Unhappy is he to
whom the memories of childhood bring only fear and sadness. Wretched
is he who looks back upon lone hours in vast and dismal chambers with
brown hangings and maddening rows of antique books, or upon awed watches
in twilight groves of grotesque, gigantic, and vine-encumbered trees
that silently wave twisted branches far aloft. Such a lot the gods gave
to me - to me, the dazed, the disappointed; the barren, the broken.
And yet I am strangely content and cling desperately to those sere memories,
when my mind momentarily threatens to reach beyond to the other.

I know not where
I was born, save that the castle was infinitely old and infinitely horrible,
full of dark passages and having high ceilings where the eye could find
only cobwebs and shadows. The stones in the crumbling corridors seemed
always hideously damp, and there was an accursed smell everywhere, as
of the piled-up corpses of dead generations. It was never light, so
that I used sometimes to light candles and gaze steadily at them for
relief, nor was there any sun outdoors, since the terrible trees grew
high above the topmost accessible tower. There was one black tower which
reached above the trees into the unknown outer sky, but that was partly
ruined and could not be ascended save by a well-nigh impossible climb
up the sheer wall, stone by stone.

I must have lived
years in this place, but I cannot measure the time. Beings must have
cared for my needs, yet I cannot recall any person except myself, or
anything alive but the noiseless rats and bats and spiders. I think
that whoever nursed me must have been shockingly aged, since my first
conception of a living person was that of somebody mockingly like myself,
yet distorted, shrivelled, and decaying like the castle. To me there
was nothing grotesque in the bones and skeletons that strewed some of
the stone crypts deep down among the foundations. I fantastically associated
these things with everyday events, and thought them more natural than
the coloured pictures of living beings which I found in many of the
mouldy books. From such books I learned all that I know. No teacher
urged or guided me, and I do not recall hearing any human voice in all
those years - not even my own; for although I had read of speech, I
had never thought to try to speak aloud. My aspect was a matter equally
unthought of, for there were no mirrors in the castle, and I merely
regarded myself by instinct as akin to the youthful figures I saw drawn
and painted in the books. I felt conscious of youth because I remembered
so little.

Outside, across
the putrid moat and under the dark mute trees, I would often lie and
dream for hours about what I read in the books; and would longingly
picture myself amidst gay crowds in the sunny world beyond the endless
forests. Once I tried to escape from the forest, but as I went farther
from the castle the shade grew denser and the air more filled with brooding
fear; so that I ran frantically back lest I lose my way in a labyrinth
of nighted silence.

So through endless
twilights I dreamed and waited, though I knew not what I waited for.
Then in the shadowy solitude my longing for light grew so frantic that
I could rest no more, and I lifted entreating hands to the single black
ruined tower that reached above the forest into the unknown outer sky.
And at last I resolved to scale that tower, fall though I might; since
it were better to glimpse the sky and perish, than to live without ever
beholding day.

In the dank twilight
I climbed the worn and aged stone stairs till I reached the level where
they ceased, and thereafter clung perilously to small footholds leading
upward. Ghastly and terrible was that dead, stairless cylinder of rock;
black, ruined, and deserted, and sinister with startled bats whose wings
made no noise. But more ghastly and terrible still was the slowness
of my progress; for climb as I might, the darkness overhead grew no
thinner, and a new chill as of haunted and venerable mould assailed
me. I shivered as I wondered why I did not reach the light, and would
have looked down had I dared. I fancied that night had come suddenly
upon me, and vainly groped with one free hand for a window embrasure,
that I might peer out and above, and try to judge the height I had once

All at once, after
an infinity of awesome, sightless, crawling up that concave and desperate
precipice, I felt my head touch a solid thing, and I knew I must have
gained the roof, or at least some kind of floor. In the darkness I raised
my free hand and tested the barrier, finding it stone and immovable.
Then came a deadly circuit of the tower, clinging to whatever holds
the slimy wall could give; till finally my testing hand found the barrier
yielding, and I turned upward again, pushing the slab or door with my
head as I used both hands in my fearful ascent. There was no light revealed
above, and as my hands went higher I knew that my climb was for the
nonce ended; since the slab was the trapdoor of an aperture leading
to a level stone surface of greater circumference than the lower tower,
no doubt the floor of some lofty and capacious observation chamber.
I crawled through carefully, and tried to prevent the heavy slab from
falling back into place, but failed in the latter attempt. As I lay
exhausted on the stone floor I heard the eerie echoes of its fall, hoped
when necessary to pry it up again.

Believing I was
now at prodigious height, far above the accursed branches of the wood,
I dragged myself up from the floor and fumbled about for windows, that
I might look for the first time upon the sky, and the moon and stars
of which I had read. But on every hand I was disappointed; since all
that I found were vast shelves of marble, bearing odious oblong boxes
of disturbing size. More and more I reflected, and wondered what hoary
secrets might abide in this high apartment so many aeons cut off from
the castle below. Then unexpectedly my hands came upon a doorway, where
hung a portal of stone, rough with strange chiselling. Trying it, I
found it locked; but with a supreme burst of strength I overcame all
obstacles and dragged it open inward. As I did so there came to me the
purest ecstasy I have ever known; for shining tranquilly through an
ornate grating of iron, and down a short stone passageway of steps that
ascended from the newly found doorway, was the radiant full moon, which
I had never before seen save in dreams and in vague visions I dared
not call memories.

Fancying now that
I had attained the very pinnacle of the castle, I commenced to rush
up the few steps beyond the door; but the sudden veiling of the moon
by a cloud caused me to stumble, and I felt my way more slowly in the
dark. It was still very dark when I reached the grating - which I tried
carefully and found unlocked, but which I did not open for fear of falling
from the amazing height to which I had climbed. Then the moon came out.

Most demoniacal
of all shocks is that of the abysmally unexpected and grotesquely unbelievable.
Nothing I had before undergone could compare in terror with what I now
saw; with the bizarre marvels that sight implied. The sight itself was
as simple as it was stupefying, for it was merely this: instead of a
dizzying prospect of treetops seen from a lofty eminence, there stretched
around me on the level through the grating nothing less than the solid
ground, decked and diversified by marble slabs and columns, and overshadowed
by an ancient stone church, whose ruined spire gleamed spectrally in
the moonlight.

Half unconscious,
I opened the grating and staggered out upon the white gravel path that
stretched away in two directions. My mind, stunned and chaotic as it
was, still held the frantic craving for light; and not even the fantastic
wonder which had happened could stay my course. I neither knew nor cared
whether my experience was insanity, dreaming, or magic; but was determined
to gaze on brilliance and gaiety at any cost. I knew not who I was or
what I was, or what my surroundings might be; though as I continued
to stumble along I became conscious of a kind of fearsome latent memory
that made my progress not wholly fortuitous. I passed under an arch
out of that region of slabs and columns, and wandered through the open
country; sometimes following the visible road, but sometimes leaving
it curiously to tread across meadows where only occasional ruins bespoke
the ancient presence of a forgotten road. Once I swam across a swift
river where crumbling, mossy masonry told of a bridge long vanished.

Over two hours must
have passed before I reached what seemed to be my goal, a venerable
ivied castle in a thickly wooded park, maddeningly familiar, yet full
of perplexing strangeness to me. I saw that the moat was filled in,
and that some of the well-known towers were demolished, whilst new wings
existed to confuse the beholder. But what I observed with chief interest
and delight were the open windows - gorgeously ablaze with light and
sending forth sound of the gayest revelry. Advancing to one of these
I looked in and saw an oddly dressed company indeed; making merry, and
speaking brightly to one another. I had never, seemingly, heard human
speech before and could guess only vaguely what was said. Some of the
faces seemed to hold expressions that brought up incredibly remote recollections,
others were utterly alien.

I now stepped through
the low window into the brilliantly lighted room, stepping as I did
so from my single bright moment of hope to my blackest convulsion of
despair and realization. The nightmare was quick to come, for as I entered,
there occurred immediately one of the most terrifying demonstrations
I had ever conceived. Scarcely had I crossed the sill when there descended
upon the whole company a sudden and unheralded fear of hideous intensity,
distorting every face and evoking the most horrible screams from nearly
every throat. Flight was universal, and in the clamour and panic several
fell in a swoon and were dragged away by their madly fleeing companions.
Many covered their eyes with their hands, and plunged blindly and awkwardly
in their race to escape, overturning furniture and stumbling against
the walls before they managed to reach one of the many doors.

The cries were shocking;
and as I stood in the brilliant apartment alone and dazed, listening
to their vanishing echoes, I trembled at the thought of what might be
lurking near me unseen. At a casual inspection the room seemed deserted,
but when I moved towards one of the alcoves I thought I detected a presence
there - a hint of motion beyond the golden-arched doorway leading to
another and somewhat similar room. As I approached the arch I began
to perceive the presence more clearly; and then, with the first and
last sound I ever uttered - a ghastly ululation that revolted me almost
as poignantly as its noxious cause - I beheld in full, frightful vividness
the inconceivable, indescribable, and unmentionable monstrosity which
had by its simple appearance changed a merry company to a herd of delirious

I cannot even hint
what it was like, for it was a compound of all that is unclean, uncanny,
unwelcome, abnormal, and detestable. It was the ghoulish shade of decay,
antiquity, and dissolution; the putrid, dripping eidolon of unwholesome
revelation, the awful baring of that which the merciful earth should
always hide. God knows it was not of this world - or no longer of this
world - yet to my horror I saw in its eaten-away and bone-revealing
outlines a leering, abhorrent travesty on the human shape; and in its
mouldy, disintegrating apparel an unspeakable quality that chilled me
even more.

I was almost paralysed,
but not too much so to make a feeble effort towards flight; a backward
stumble which failed to break the spell in which the nameless, voiceless
monster held me. My eyes bewitched by the glassy orbs which stared loathsomely
into them, refused to close; though they were mercifully blurred, and
showed the terrible object but indistinctly after the first shock. I
tried to raise my hand to shut out the sight, yet so stunned were my
nerves that my arm could not fully obey my will. The attempt, however,
was enough to disturb my balance; so that I had to stagger forward several
steps to avoid falling. As I did so I became suddenly and agonizingly
aware of the nearness of the carrion thing, whose hideous hollow breathing
I half fancied I could hear. Nearly mad, I found myself yet able to
throw out a hand to ward off the foetid apparition which pressed so
close; when in one cataclysmic second of cosmic nightmarishness and
hellish accident my fingers touched the rotting outstretched paw of
the monster beneath the golden arch.

I did not shriek,
but all the fiendish ghouls that ride the nightwind shrieked for me
as in that same second there crashed down upon my mind a single fleeting
avalanche of soul-annihilating memory. I knew in that second all that
had been; I remembered beyond the frightful castle and the trees, and
recognized the altered edifice in which I now stood; I recognized, most
terrible of all, the unholy abomination that stood leering before me
as I withdrew my sullied fingers from its own.

But in the cosmos
there is balm as well as bitterness, and that balm is nepenthe. In the
supreme horror of that second I forgot what had horrified me, and the
burst of black memory vanished in a chaos of echoing images. In a dream
I fled from that haunted and accursed pile, and ran swiftly and silently
in the moonlight. When I returned to the churchyard place of marble
and went down the steps I found the stone trap-door immovable; but I
was not sorry, for I had hated the antique castle and the trees. Now
I ride with the mocking and friendly ghouls on the night-wind, and play
by day amongst the catacombs of Nephren-Ka in the sealed and unknown
valley of Hadoth by the Nile. I know that light is not for me, save
that of the moon over the rock tombs of Neb, nor any gaiety save the
unnamed feasts of Nitokris beneath the Great Pyramid; yet in my new
wildness and freedom I almost welcome the bitterness of alienage.

For although nepenthe
has calmed me, I know always that I am an outsider; a stranger in this
century and among those who are still men. This I have known ever since
I stretched out my fingers to the abomination within that great gilded
frame; stretched out my fingers and touched a cold and unyielding surface
of polished glass.

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